Sportswriters are up in arms because they don't like that Kevin Durant did what he wanted.
27-year-old human being Kevin Durant announced over the weekend that he was joining the Golden State Warriors and it sent a certain sect of the sportswriting community into a free fall of tears and rended garments. Stephen A. Smith called it "the weakest move I've ever seen from a superstar," as if anyone gives one shit about the relative strength of the moves Stephen A. Smith has seen. 13 minutes after the announcement, Jay Mariotti criticized Durant because he "ran away from OKC instead of trying one more time to win there." Mike Lupica wrote an entire column premised on the notion that the "gotta-have-a-ring mentality"—a mentality invented out of thin air by sportswriters—is now actually bad. Gregg Doyel used the news to excrete a column about the Indiana Pacers (Gregg, maybe if the team wasn't in fucking Indiana people would want to play there) and wore out the pages of his thesaurus to call Durant "spineless" a whopping five times for choosing to play in Oakland.
The two running themes here are that these people are lazy and they are full of shit. No one in the world should care where Kevin Durant plays basketball, and they certainly shouldn't care enough to scream about it on ESPN. But sportswriters, even though their job is to report on real world topics, write fiction. They create narratives because it's easier to do the job if there is a relatable storyline to follow. Those storylines then have to have a reason for existence, so then comes the moralizing.
In no other field of work would it be acceptable to criticize a person for choosing to be professionally happy, well-compensated, and in a position to achieve personal goals. But it happens all the time in sports because of the yarns spun by the likes of Mariotti and Lupica. Arbitrary expectations and rules, based on pure fantasy, are foisted upon athletes so that we can enjoy a good story. The dirty secret of sportswriting is that we love the unpredictability and realness of sports, but we want it to be produced like reality television with heroes and villains and a plot that is pleasing and familiar. The first words in this column about the Pacers are "It's charming." After briefly touching on Indiana's modest offseason, the second paragraph is simply "Pleasing, right?" It's immediately set up for you: The Pacers are the plucky little guy doing things the right way, and Durant and the Warriors are Ivan Drago.
Because of this constant lens, Durant is not a person with a career who made a professional decision. Kevin Durant is a character who is supposed to be unwavering in his loyalty to his city and team. He's supposed to sacrifice himself for the ownership group that stole a franchise from Seattle and got a different city to finance a stadium. Durant will now forever be a bad guy because he left. Meanwhile, Clay Bennett—an actual villain—is still there, a sympathetic victim now thanks to sportswriters who always seem to forget these phony narratives when it comes to the owners. (How often do you hear about what a disgrace it is that athletes get paid so much? And how often do you hear what a disgrace it is that owners pay those salaries and are still operating a profitable business?)
So now that he's a villain, Durant needs to have a critical flaw, and they found one quickly: He was supposed to "win the right way," but by choosing the Warriors he chose to win the easy way. Conveniently, it is apparently no longer acceptable that athletes care about winning. Remember when all athletes were "me me me" guys and just wanted to collect a check and preen and didn't care if they won or lost? Remember how sportswriters invented that? And then they invented the idea of The Winner. The Winner is the ideal athlete, which is a heavy burden when you consider all athletes have become idealized versions of real people—and The Winner is distinct from an amazing athlete. Individual stats only took a player so far, no matter how mesmerizing the performance. True greatness, however, depended on if you won the big game, and if so, how many times. Now, KD has shone light on another invention: you don't have to just win, but you have to win in a way that does not offend. This is how intellectually bankrupt American sportswriting is: to win the right way is to win as if real life were Rudy or Hoosiers. Which is to say, win fictitiously. Win in three acts, win in a way that suits me.
It's fairly easy to show just how phony this narrative is, too, and you only need to look to the reception LeBron James received when he returned home to Cleveland a winner for proof. He was brutalized by virtually everyone when he first left for Miami. He was the most hated player in the league for stacking the deck in his favor, and a few short years later, he was an NBA Champion, a veteran and respected leader, a fan favorite. Now LeBron's a folk hero and no one cares that he left (except the sportswriters who keep talking about it). Once he starts playing, no one will care that Durant left, either. Nevertheless, the notion has become so ingrained in the conversations surrounding sports that it trickles down to the athletes, including Durant himself:
Ordinarily, using a narrative to relate information isn't inherently bad, it's actually useful, but you run into trouble when you forget that the central piece of information is actually alive and breathing. It seems crazy to have to point this out, but sports, theatrical as they are, are not fiction. They are real things, done by real humans. Kevin Durant isn't a muse for Gregg fucking Doyel. He is a person, who made a decision to play basketball on another team because he wanted to. That's it. And now sportswriters somehow think it is their job to tell the world that, actually, what Kevin Durant wants—professional success, personal happiness, money—is bad. I'm sorry Mr. Durant, but your decision does not fit inside my personal belief system for how athletes should behave, so now you are a bad guy because the only way I can do my job is to pretend we're in a movie.
Takes like these are a product of 24-hour coverage to a certain degree, but they were always there, there's just more of them now. The real reason they exist is because many prominent columnists have no interest in actually considering sports as real. They are the ones who say that sports are "an escape," they want to keep sports separate from politics—from the rest of life—and when life bleeds into that fantasy world, they get really upset, lash out, and call Kevin Durant "spineless." All while conveniently failing to acknowledge that they too left their little underdog outlets for media juggernauts where they were surrounded by better coworkers, earned higher pay, and received more exposure. It's a pretty impressive feat, actually. They've not only conjured up a phony narrative but have also managed to be hypocritical about it.